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JUSTICES BAR WOMAN'S SUIT ALLEGING SEXUAL ABUSE IN '75

The Utah Supreme Court has unanimously barred a woman from proceeding with her lawsuit against a man she claims sexually abused her more than 20 years ago.

The high court, in a ruling made public Tuesday, upheld a lower court's decision that the civil action filed by Mechelle Roark is banned by the statute of limitations.The justices also said the woman could not rely on a law passed by the 1992 Legislature designed to allow victims who claim they've recovered memories of past abuse to pursue the matter in court.

That statute, the court said, cannot be applied retroactively.

"What this ruling does is effectively eliminate any avenue for tens of thousands of victims who were abused before this law was passed," said Roark's attorney, David K. Isom.

Roark had sued Jack Crabtree in September 1993, claiming he had sexually abused her in 1975 when she was 15 years old. The lawsuit also named as a defendant a "John Doe" who was never identified.

The woman, a neighbor of Crab-tree's, never pursued the matter with police at the time, and no criminal charges were filed, according to John E. S. Robson, Crabtree's attorney. Robson said his client denies anything ever happened.

The lawsuit was filed after the Legislature passed a law extending the statute of limitations for actions involving alleged recovered memories of sexual abuse. In those instances, the statute does not even begin until the victim has discovered the abuse - even though it could be decades after the incident - and then runs for four years.

Third District Judge David Young dismissed the lawsuit, saying that law cannot be applied retroactively. Under the law on the books in 1975, Young said, the statute of limitations in Roark'scase expired in 1980.

The woman never claimed she had repressed memories of the abuse. But it wasn't until she was in nursing school and the topic of sexual abuse came up that she realized she was suffering from "emo-tional injuries" arising from the incidents, Isom said.

He had argued that the Legislature intended for the law to be applied retroactively. "The Legis-lature expressly intended to provide a means whereby adult survivors . . . could recover for sexual abuse which occurred before the statute was enacted," he wrote.

But not only was there no evidence to back that claim, the ruling said there was a substantial record that the bill's sponsors had been warned of potential constitutional problems and intended it to be applied only from 1992 on.

"We are unable to find any support for Roark's position," Justice Leonard Russon wrote for a unanimous court. "To the contrary, there is ample support for the position that the legislators were aware of the problems with retroactive application and intended to avoid those problems by having this section apply prospectively."

Former Rep. Joanne Milner, who co-sponsored the measure, said that in order to ensure passage, she was forced to remove a clause that would have allowed the law to be applied retroactively.

"It really seemed sort of unfair at the time, that if you remember from this point on you are OK, but if you were abused in the past, well, too bad," she said.